The first hot pepper I ate was the orange Habanero, which was challenging for me at that time. As my mouth burned, I started feeling woozy, almost like I had a couple of shots. What the?!?
I thought my first impression was just a fluke, but it happened again. That’s when I wondered: What makes peppers hot, and why can spicy food make you feel drunk?
Capsaicin (C₁₈H₂₇NO₃) is the chemical substance that makes peppers taste hot to mammals. The substance triggers pain receptors in the body, tricking it into believing it’s in pain. The result: endorphins are released and you start getting that “happy buzz” feeling.
Let’s get into how capsaicin impacts the body, where it’s found in peppers, and what to do when you need relief from the heat.
Capsaicin, the active part in peppers, triggers pain receptors in mammals’ bodies, such as their mouths, stomach, skin, or eyes. When you eat chili peppers, the capsaicin “helpfully” binds to the vanilloid receptors (VR1). The sensory neurons respond by sending a signal to the brain that translates to “ouch!”
Your mouth isn’t being burned by capsaicin; it’s a “joke” your brain falls for repeatedly. Depending on how much “ouch” a body receives, physical reactions can include sweating, inflammation, and throwing up (the latter makes you experience the pain twice – good times).
The amount of “ouch” and fire a chili pepper contains is ranked according to the Scoville scale. It’s not an exact science because a crucial part of this rating depends on human taste buds. Even so, the ranking by Scoville Heat Units (SHU) works well enough to give you a realistic expectation of how much heat to expect.
So, a Banana pepper (0-500 SHU) has less heat than the Jalapeno Scoville (up to 8,000 SHU) and Jalapenos are less intense than an orange Habanero (up to 325,000 SHU). If you want to experience the extreme end of the Scoville scale, check out the Carolina Reaper (up to 2,200,000 SHU).
Where Is Capsaicin Found In Peppers?
Capsaicin is found in the white membranes of a pepper, known as the placental tissue and also called the white pith. The flesh contains a little fire, but it’s not the main source of heat.
What Makes Peppers Hot: Seeds Or Membrane?
Here’s a common question: Are the seeds in peppers hot? You might remove the seeds thinking it reduces the heat. Pepper seeds don’t have any capsaicin so they’re not hot; it’s the white membrane that will get you!
If you want to bring down the heat, remove the inner membranes of the pepper. The flesh of the chile contains capsaicin but to a lesser degree.
Why Did Peppers Evolve To Be Hot?
It’s speculated that peppers are hot as a defense mechanism. There are a couple of reasons why peppers have capsaicin.
One theory is that chile heat keeps mammals from eating the fruit. The teeth and digestive system of mammals damage seeds as they pass through, making it almost impossible for them to germinate and grow into new plants.
Another idea is that pepper plants are hot as a defense mechanism against fungi. When an insect pierces the flesh of a fruit to suck its juice, it can introduce fungi that damage seeds. Capsaicin, a natural antifungal, reduces fungal growth in chili peppers, which saves seeds from destruction.
do birds eat pepper plants?
Birds lack receptors for capsaicin, which means they’re immune to the heat and can eat peppers. When eating chilies, birds don’t destroy the seeds in their digestive system and, instead, spread pepper seeds in their droppings. Even more, a study at Iowa State University found that chili seeds that pass through a starling’s gut germinate better than those that just plop to the ground!
Peppers On The Heat Scale
When it comes to heat, peppers range from zero SHU to well over 1 million SHUs on the Scoville scale. To get a better sense of heat ratings, let’s rank some common chile varieties.
- Bell Pepper: 0 SHU (no heat)
- Jalapeno: 2,500 to 8,000 SHU (moderate heat)
- Cayenne: 30,000 to 50,000 SHU (medium hot)
- Habanero: 150,000 to 325,000 SHU (hot pepper)
- Ghost Pepper (Bhut Jolokia): 1,041,427 SHU (super hot pepper)
Why Do Some People Love Hot Peppers?
Eating spicy chilies produces a burning sensation so what makes us love the pain of hot peppers? Well, just as there’s a phenomenon known as “runner’s high,” there’s also a chili high.
When the body is in pain, it reacts to protect itself and to soothe. So, when the brain gets that “ouch” signal, it releases endorphins, including dopamine. In other words, it triggers all those good feelings!
What also increases dopamine? Alcohol! And this, my friends, is why eating hot peppers can make you feel drunk. 😀
I should also mention that nicotine, and-ahem-other substances also raise dopamine. That’s why some people even feel high when eating chilies.
Why We Love Spicy Food (Jenny & Jesse)
Eating spicy chilies isn’t a self-torture thing. In my opinion, hot peppers taste really good.
For me (Jenny), hot peppers amplify the flavors of a dish. Food starts tasting bland without them after a while. Plus, heat tolerance goes up fairly quickly so spicy chilies aren’t as painful as the first time.
Here’s what Jesse says about eating hot peppers: “They are delicious. They make me feel good. The smell of a super hot pepper or a super spicy hot sauce like Black Mamba makes me drool and I can’t wait to eat it. I love challenging myself. Just thinking of hot peppers makes me smile. And, if I’m sick, they clear my sinuses and make me feel better.”
Essentially, we’re both chileheads. 🌶
How To Stop Pepper Burn On Skin & Mouth
Many people reach for the water when peppers are hot. (Classic mistake.) Capsaicin is hydrophobic, which means it’s repelled from water. All water does is spread the remaining “unstuck” capsaicin around, making the heat worse.
Stopping chile pepper burn requires unsticking the waxy, crystalized capsaicin from the pain receptors and washing it away. Casein (found in dairy) is excellent for unsticking capsaicin.
To help with mouth burn, drink milk or eat ice cream, sour cream, or cottage cheese.
When it comes to getting capsaicin off the skin, you can rinse your skin or eyes with milk. Dairy is a very mild acid, but it is cool and soothing, and the fat will bond with the capsaicin, helping dislodge it from the pain receptors.
Another common method is washing your hands with lemon juice. Capsaicin is alkaline, and the slight acidity helps neutralize the burn. You can also drink lemonade or OJ to help your mouth out.
If you don’t have lemon juice, other substances that help with burning skin are rubbing alcohol, white vinegar, and vodka. Grease-fighting dish soap (so not the eco kind) will also do a better job getting capsaicin off your hands than standard hand soap.
Spicy Pepper FAQs
Do Bell Peppers Have Capsaicin?
Bell peppers do not have capsaicin, registering a zero in the Scoville units. Uniquely, they are the only member of the Capsicum family to lack any capsaicin.
Does Capsaicin Actually Burn You?
Capsaicin does not actually burn you. But the damage can occur if the body’s response is severe.
Are Hot Peppers Good For You?
Hot peppers are good for you, packed with more vitamin C than oranges, and contain vitamins A, B, and E. In addition to the health benefits, a 2020 science report found that consuming chili pepper regularly has an over 20% reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular diseases or cancer.
There you have it – capsaicin is what makes peppers hot. And, when you eat spicy food, enjoy that drunk feeling (chili high) without the hangover!
Want to keep going down the hot peppers rabbit hole? Check out the hottest peppers in the world page!